Coaches have agreed in the Montana high school girls’ softball conversations that the sacrifice fly is almost as automatic a scoring play as the home run.
The team would have a runner on third base and less than two out. A fly ball is lifted to the outfield, heck, in some cases, just behind the corners of the infield — or even in foul grounds. The ball is caught, and the runner tags up and scores ahead of the throw home, if one is attempted, every time. It is automatic — in most cases.
When Kalispell Glacier found itself looking at that opportunity a second time in a recent game against Butte High recently at Stodden Park, the third-base coach told the runner to stay put. The flyball had gone to center field from where Justyce Connole fired a strike home to erase a would-be Glacier scorer at the plate a couple of innings earlier.
Senior catcher Maria Michelotti applied the tag and it wasn’t even close. The Wolfpack didn’t challenge Connole again.
Connole has thrown out three runners at the plate this season.
“Five or six assists (total) for the season,” first-year head coach Ryan Stosich said in appreciation while at a practice earlier this week, indicating the senior outfielder has gunned down some runners on the other basepaths, as well. “Her throwing arm is probably her best asset. Teams are learning they shouldn’t try to run on her.”
“I love defense,” Connole said with a big smile, adding that completing the double play with such throws is especially satisfying.
For a good part of the season, she has liked that part of her game better than the offensive role. Connole broke out of a struggling stretch where she struck out eight times in 10 at-bats and found herself dropped down the batting order. The breakout, however, was, as they say, sweet — two home runs against Billings Senior.
The timing was good, too. Billings is where Connole will be playing next year, having signed a letter of intent with the Montana State-Billings program. She will be in the outfield.
“Defense is more fun, for me, when there’s action out there (in the outfield). I like hitting when I’m hitting well.”
Since the slump, she has been. Connole, a fourth-year varsity starter, credited some homework with getting her hitting right. She said a net hanged in the family home basement works for hitting balls into as she polishes her swing. It was there, she said, that she rediscovered her stroke.
The working-at-it commitment came as no surprise to Stosich.
“She brings the hard-work (aspect) to the team,” the coach said. “We had about 45 open gyms over the winter and she didn’t miss many. She set a good example for the younger players. She’s a good leader, not selfish.”
Connole also had a pretty good idea that the slump was due to end. She blasted two line drives — one versus Glacier and the other in a win over Great Falls High — only to see the smashes snagged by her center-field counterparts right at the fence.
The Bulldogs are blending seven seniors with an otherwise fairly inexperienced roster this year while building an 9-8 record so far, that includes a 6-2 Eastern AA Conference mark, third in the league and on the inside track for a home playoffs spot. Lately, six seniors, two freshmen, a junior and a sophomore have been forming the starting lineup with a freshman and a senior being the key reserves. The top two pitchers are freshmen.
Connole also took a turn in the pitching circle in a non-conference game, but otherwise has been a defensive anchor in center field.
“Pitching? I’ll do it when the coaches want me to,” she said with a shrug.
Prior to this season, she pitched and filled in at shortstop in addition to playing in the outfield.
“We’re playing well,” Connole said. “We’re playing a lot better than I thought we would coming into the season. I didn’t know that our freshmen were going to be this competitive-ready at the varsity level. Now, I’m really confident.”
Connole said moving in the batting order from the No. 2 slot, a runner-advancement spot, to hitting fifth or sixth with expectations to drive in runs, has not even been a concern. She just understands the duties.
Connole played three years of basketball prior to this school year, and has been a three-sport academic All-Stater at Butte High in softball, basketball and soccer. Her 3.917 grade-point average likely had much to do with winning the softball scholarship to MSU-Billings where Connole said she will major in biology. She said she plans to be an optometrist.
“Justyce is joining us from Butte and we are happy to start building a recruiting base back in Butte,” MSU-Billings head coach Lisa Allen said in a press release announcing Connole’s signing. “They have had some good players over the past few years and we are happy that we got one of the best. She is eager to learn and is very coachable.
“She will learn a lot from our upperclassman outfield and will help to grow our outfield depth with the strength of her arm.”
The senior season is shaping up to be a fun one, Connole said.
“The best part is being with my senior friends,” she said. “And winning. I hate losing.”
The other seniors are Michelotti, first baseman Bethany McLean, second baseman Ashten McCloskey, right fielder Tristan Walks, designated player Amanda Spear and utility player Ellie Hoffenbacker. Other starters are freshman pitcher Kaidy McClafferty, freshman shortstop Kennedi Ferriter, junior third baseman Isabelle Bonney and sophomore left fielder Katelyn Alley. Hoffenbacker, freshman pitcher Katlyn O’Brien and freshman outfielder Jenna Walker also see starting time.
Away from playing softball, Connole likes to draw and she gives back to the sport by umpiring youth softball games. Youth softball was an important cog in the machinery that is taking her to college softball. Connole played on the most recent Butte team to compete in the Little League Senior Softball World Series in Delaware in 2012.
Former Butte High head coach Steve Stosich, now his son’s assistant, said Connole has worked hard to become a good player and patrols the outfield well. He was her head coach for three years.
“She’s a good center fielder and she runs well,” he said. “She loves softball and it’s paid off for her. She’s committed to this program and what it stands for.”
All that’s really left then, for the Justyce Connole statement on her softball career, would be the punctuation — perhaps an extended season, a state-tournament run.
The Bulldogs will try to complete it as this month continues.